Perfect Sound Forever

Love and Distortion:
The Constantines

Photo by Davida Nemeroff

by Mairead Case
(September 2005)

"Rock is dead," says my friend J.D. He punctuates it with the sort of laugh that explodes, usually from misbehaving eight-year-olds, or frat boys faced with tits for the first time. We are watching the Residents covering "We Are The World." "Then," he says, pointing at what seem to be gigantic pink cats clomping on stage, "then, people knew their shit. They knew what they were fighting for." Mostly, I believe J.D., even though my heart hurts to say it and especially when I'm looking at a Barnes and Noble insert. Sometimes, though, I say a flat-out "hells no." Sometimes, I'm listening to the Constantines.

It's a heavy thesis, boys and girls, but it's a true one: they're five kids from Guelph, Ontario, five kids who grew up on punk, patches, and safety pins. They're named for Alex Constantine, a conspiracy theorist "who pulled voices from the air" and they're injecting some much-needed adrenaline into the sludge-pumping Heart of Rock.

"We write music in bits and pieces," says vocalist/guitarist Bry Webb. We are sitting in the Green Room of Chicago's Empty Bottle Lounge. He is wearing an earflap hat against the cold, and our words smoke into the air. "I like the assemblage idea of writing songs. You take things from your world, right? And put them in an order that means something."

Coming from a man who writes about Lazarus, Superman, and high schoolers at the abattoir, it makes perfect sense. Case in point: "Arizona," the opening track on the Cons' self-titled debut (available on Three Gut and now Sub Pop). Here, Steve Lambke - who looks like The Wonder Years' Paul Pfeifer after a few power smoothies - croons the beginning of a dual obituary. It's a song for Danny Rapp, composer of "Rock n Roll Is Here to Stay"-slash-suicide, and also that "great gospel jest called rock and roll." Later, Webb's papery sandthroat kicks in: "as long as we are lonely, we will dance. As long as we are dying, we want the death of rock and roll."

Perhaps, this is a truer truth. Perhaps rock is dead, like that fourteen-year-old gum-chewing photographer J.D. said, and perhaps it was a suicide; perhaps the Cons are flushing color back into the ghost's cheeks. Their songs have a deep kind of desperation and a certain chaos, but also a calculated sort of mystery. Listening to the Cons, especially in the flesh, is like slouching towards Bethlehem: like a helicopter rising from the ashes, things bruise and smear, but we are moving ever upwards. Especially when Webb's throat fights his words.

The Cons don't make anything easier, but they do pull you into the storm. Whether this is death or resurrection, baptism by fire or slit-throat prophets, I'll take it. I'll take the Neil Young references and Robert Motherwell nods; I'll take the stop-and-start, the power chords and the keyboards and the part that sounds like stomping on a barn floor (on Shine A Light, their second album and first on Sub Pop). I'll take the spidery bass beginning to "Young Lions," the bloody sparkle of "Love In Fear," and especially the blue-collar, late-night-fever lyrics that rival anything Springsteen ever rang in your gut.

What do these guys really sound like? Although one dude on their livejournal swears he hears Wilco and Elvis Costello, the standard comparison is Fugazi crossed with Springsteen. "It's cool," says Webb. "When I was young, that's how I identified with the Residents. 'Oh, they're a Springsteen kinda band.'" As for the Cons' cover choices, which range from the Talking Heads by way of Nina Simone to the Clash, "we pick simple songs - songs you can learn pretty quickly." And don't forget the side project, a casual Neil Young cover band called Horsey Craze. "Last time, we had a buncha guitar players and a trumpet."

The Constantines quit their day jobs in 2004. Before then, Webb logged hours at Insound and a local bookstore. "I've realized," he says, "that when I'm working on music, I can go eight hours without drinking a glass of water. It's kind of ridiculous." He stops and nods at Wehrle, who has come down the stairs, eyebrows raised. "Just a little longer, dude," says Webb. Subtext: thank you for checking up on me; this critic hasn't sucked my soul just yet. These boys know each other well.

One of the songs on Tournament of Hearts, "You Are A Conductor," begins with Doug MacGregor's smooth drum roll and continues with just the right space between guitar waves. "There's a little evil in everything," sings Lambke. "You are a conductor. Battles to come."

Here, you think back to Track Three, assemblage-style: Lizaveta, a girl unbuttoned in the rain. "Lover," she says, "let's run for cover."

"Lover," responds Webb's voice, "I say, 'lover, wait.' Stay here, and I'll give it all I'm worth."

You can see them, two beings on a soaking street corner, singing and waiting, not as directors, but as the conduit. If lightning strikes, if "the evil in everything comes," these two will light up the world. "We desire disorder," sings Webb, and then the chorus hits.

Also see the Constantines website

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